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Annie

Annie came to live with us in the most unexpected of circumstances - through a fragmented web of relationship as so often happens in small regional communities.

A local real estate agent had gotten in touch with a friend - asking if she could help rehome some horses on behalf of a gentleman who was selling his property. He was unwell and the horses needed to be rehomed quickly.

My friend asked me if I would help - and very quickly we found ourselves witnessing the most tender and often unspoken of moments within a family who until days before had been completely unknown to us.

The family - exhausted, stretched, fearful, grateful - gathered at the property helping the man take care of the house sale and the careful, painful work of boxing up the memories and items that make up a life.

The man himself - angry, sad, frustrated, surrendered - and his dance between acceptance and resistance. His horses representing days when his body could do more, when his capacities were different to what they were now.

The real estate agents and the lawyers, the care workers and the friends. Gathered around too. Coming and going from the property.

And us. And his horses. Kind of standing amid this symphony of grief and turbulence - witnessing it all.

When I first met Annie she was charging her owner in the paddock - ears pinned, teeth bared.

Her face was pulled as if in pain, the veins popping out of her cheeks. The muscles around her forehead were raised and tight from grinding her teeth.

I’ve never seen an embodiment of terror and anger so exquisitely represented - as if these states of being had twisted and contorted this beautiful chestnut mare into something altogether different.

In a smaller yard a little later, she was more settled. Settled, but shut down. She let me put a halter on her and stroke her forehead - relaxing with big sighs as I did. But she didn’t respond to touch or much at all. Escaping in her head to somewhere else - somewhere other than here.

Her mind and her feet were in two different places. And that was safety to her.

The ensuing weeks were stressful - finding paddocks and water and feed for the three horses that were temporarily being housed near me.

The day of moving them was agonising for everyone. A long, hot drawn out affair of trying to load stressed horses onto a float - while tenderly making space for the needs and desires of the man and his family.

In the end, we walked two of them 5km across hot bitchumen. Throats parched, bodies aching. Hooves pounding on the pavement behind us.

Annie walked onto the float after about an hour - but on arrival at mine pulled back on the lead rope as I was unloading her and tore rope burns into my hand.

The three of the horses that came were different expressions of tightly wound, highly anxious souls who had developed a deep dependence on each other for safety (horses are herd animals and need each other for survival - fretting when they are on their own is a survival instinct, but these horses were so attached that they were also miserable, as we would come to find out when they eventually made their way to their new homes).

Over the coming weeks as we let them settle into their new paddock, I watched Annie.

She would run from me in the paddock, pin her ears when I touched her. She was aggressive around food and when I took her out for a walk from the paddock - even a few meters, should would start sweating and snorting - losing awareness of her body in space and crashing into me in an attempt to work through the survival energy coursing through her system.

She was frustrated by the other horses, but also desperately needed them.

It became clear that Annie just didn’t like humans very much. That she felt safer away from them than with them.

And so it was there that we started.

The first few weeks I worked on her catching me, rather than the other way around. She hadn’t had much positive reinforcement used and so once she realised that she would get a bite of a carrot and a head scratch, she stopped running so much.

After that, I asked her for nothing. I would halter her and stand by her side, or just in front of her, and wait. And wait.

I’d wait for her to show me that she was unwinding, releasing. In horses this means sighs, licks, chews, yawns, blinks, ear flicks or the lowering of her head.

Horses are very similar to us. They will hold onto their survival energy - the adrenaline, the cortisol - muscles tensing, eyes and ears straining, whole system on high alert - until they either release it through movement or through co-regulation with another being.

Over time, horses who aren’t offered safe places to release - or to move according to their survival instinct - can get so wound up they become sour, shut down or exhibit behaviours that humans deem inconvenient or dangerous.

Annie struck me as a horse who had been asked a lot of in her life. And given very little space to respond in the way she truly felt - which was fear, uncertainty or confusion.

I found out later that as a young horse she had been beaten with a poly pipe.

And so I just stayed with her. And waited. And watched.

I gave her the gift of unwavering presence. Of asking very little. And I offered my own settled system for her to regulate with. Together we would shake and sigh and breathe and gently move.

Releasing our own survival energy from all the times in the day that we got scared or worried or unsure.

And slowly, Annie began to come back to life.

She began to meet me in the paddock. Share her food with my other pony.

I moved her from her paddock mates into a new paddock with new horses and she began to make healthier bonds - her anxiety settling.

She began to let me sit on her back. And often flicked an eyelid or an ear when I patted her. I became able to touch her chest and belly which had previously resulted in her trying to nip me.

Every time she let me know it was too much, I backed off.

It’s amazing how slowly other beings need us to go - and how often we miss the signals in our own haste toward accomplishing an outcome.

I spent an entire two weeks in the paddock standing next to her on a bucket until she no longer moved away from me in that position, but started moving toward me.

And none of this happened because I’m an amazing horse trainer …. I’m not.

It happened because I watched. And listened. And didn’t punish her for being afraid. I met her where she was on any given day, surrendering my agenda and instead favoured presence.

Three months after she first came home, she let me ride her bareback and without a bridle - ears flicking back to listen to me as her head bobbed toward the setting sun.

Her feet and her mind came back into the same place.

The journey to re-embodiment is not linear, nor the same for every being. It is the slow, subtle work of finding safety and dropping an anchor there. If only for a breath. A word. A song.

But what is, I believe, similar in all journeys back to the body is that it takes time.

So often our deepest desire is just to be witnessed. For these feelings to be presenced. For them to be given a safe path through us and into the earth so that we, like Annie, can sigh and yawn and begin to shake off the years of accumulated survival energy that have come to dictate the way we move in the world and the urgency we perpetuate in our systems and culture.

My experience has been that when we find that safe harbour, our bodies know what to do. They know how to find equilibrium again.

They desire to land back on the ground - feet planted, bones heavy.

I also believe that just like Annie we needs moments in life - retreats - seasons of healing - where we are not asked to give anything more. Where we step out of the mainstream conceptions of exchange and extraction and instead give no more of ourselves than we are willing to.

We do not owe anyone our bodies, or our time, or our presence especially if we are not feeling safe in ourselves.

If those seasons were given as much reverence as those seasons where we are outwardly productive, I believe, we’d build a really different tomorrow.

For us. For Annie. And for the generations to come.


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